Pat Summitt setting tone early

When it comes to basketball familiarity doesn't breed contempt. It breeds better basketball. It is apparent the Lady Vols have spent considerable time on the court in the summer playing pickup, but Angie Bjorklund said it's merely a start for how much the team needs to play together to get prepared for this season.

"This past summer we played all the time," Angie Bjorklund said.

But the beginning of fall semester means curfews, classes – some players have evening ones, too – mandatory study hall for the freshmen and pre-dawn conditioning sessions with Heather Mason several times a week. Add in weight training, individual workouts and now team workouts and the available hours in a day to just play diminish.

"In the fall we've been playing a couple of times a week, and I come in and shoot as much as I can," Bjorklund said.

It's already apparent on the floor that the players are more familiar with each other – of course, the comparison is to a year ago when there were seven newcomers on the court – but Bjorklund said much improvement remains to be made.

"I think we still have a long ways to go, especially putting in a few new offenses, hopefully our freshmen will pick it up quick, but our veterans should know what we're doing, and it should be flowing a lot better than it is right now," Bjorklund said. "We have a long ways to go.

"I think our effort is there. Towards the end we've been giving in to fatigue, but for the most part, compared to last year, I think our effort is there. It's a lot better. But I think just flowing on offense, that will come with time, and getting familiar with each other."

A year ago Bjorklund would not have answered so forthrightly. But the junior sharpshooter from Spokane Valley, Wash., is a two-year starter with a national championship ring from 2008, and the most-experienced player on the floor for Tennessee. She has led by example for two years. Coach Pat Summitt has asked her to lead with her voice this season.

"This is definitely going to be a transition from leading by example to being a vocal leader," said Bjorklund, who laughed in agreement about the general notion that West Coast players can be laidback by nature. "Now, it's time for me to step up and be more vocal, and it's definitely a stretch. I've got to keep myself accountable and keep the whole team accountable. That's definitely a lot different."

Summitt had plenty to say after Thursday's two-hour session. It ended with full-court scrimmages against the male practice players – a pool of seven was available so they could rotate in a pair of fresh bodies – that left a few Lady Vols gasping for breath, notably freshman guard Kamiko Williams and sophomore post Alyssia Brewer.

"We had two people today, Lyssi and Kamiko, that really struggled to play hard up and down consistently so maybe they can get extra conditioning," Summitt said.

"One of my biggest concerns for this team is their mental toughness and based on what I saw today we don't have it across the board. But we don't have to have it across the board because we've got enough depth that if we want to play seven or eight, we play seven or eight."

Tennessee has 13 players on the roster this season – among those are sophomore Amber Gray, who is out for the season to recover from a stroke, and junior post Vicki Baugh, who remains out of action as she rehabs from ACL surgery – with seven who can play on the perimeter. Depth on the perimeter is a luxury Tennessee hasn't had in a long time. It also means there is a logjam on the sideline, a particularly peculiar occurrence for the Lady Vols, who oftentimes over the years have had to have players double up in drills instead of rotating in and out.

"I'm not worried about it, because I may play five perimeter players," said Summitt, who mentioned she especially liked the inside combo Thursday of sophomore forward Glory Johnson at the five spot and freshman guard Taber Spani at the four position with three guards on the perimeter.

Johnson, a track star in high school, can run for hours. Spani, a freshman in age only, had no problem staying on pace Thursday in the scrimmages, and she and Johnson made some nice interior passes to each other, despite Spani, a shooting guard, trying out a new position on the floor at power forward. Spani has the size and strength to play inside.

That, however, was not a shot by Summitt across the bow of Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center who remains a big part of the post plans. Cain has been limited in conditioning sessions for the past two years because of surgery to realign her right kneecap and then an operation to remove two migrating screws, so she is still working to get into basketball shape.

Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, said she might substitute some elliptical work for running to save the pounding on Cain's knee as she rebuilds her stamina.

"It's better than it was, but it can be better," Moshak said of Cain's overall conditioning. "I am happy with where Kelley is. I told her practice is never going to equal a 40-minute game so if she can handle practice, a 40-minute game is going to be a piece of cake. She's got more timeouts, a 15-minute halftime and a 40-minute game. If she can make it through practice she'll be fine."

Cain was noticeably agile in the half-court drills – she was deflecting skip passes on defense, and she was getting deep position in the paint on offense.

"When she posts up she's using her hips the way she needs to," Moshak said.

The post depth was thin Thursday with Baugh out and the absence of freshman Faith Dupree for the second hour after she sprained her thumb and needed a medical evaluation. She checked out OK but will wear a brace. Brewer is already playing with a brace on her sprained thumb, and sophomore guard/forward Alicia Manning has a sprained finger and is playing with extensive wrapping. Johnson, who had been wearing a wrap on her left shoulder in the workouts after tweaking it last June, has now shed the brace.

The approach with Baugh, who had ACL surgery on her left knee in May 2008 and then again in February 2009, is one of caution and without a timetable as to when she would return.

"I am leaving that totally up to Jenny," Summitt said.

Baugh is working in the weight room and doing exercises to play on balance, especially when she lands, whether on two legs or one.

"She's not ready," Moshak said. "What everybody has got to realize is that in a calendar year she has had two surgeries and major surgeries, two ACLs. We're going to take this slow, do this right, build the leg back up. She's more on balance than she's ever been and even when she lands on one leg, landing right."

With the health of the post players in flux, the depth on the perimeter – Briana Bass, Shekinna Stricklen, Sydney Smallbone, Bjorklund, Manning, Spani and Williams – has been fortuitous.

At the first team workout last week, they came up with a sideline game to see who would rotate in next.

"We were doing rock, paper, scissors to see who goes in the other day," Bjorklund said.

The competition level for playing time on the perimeter has been upped this preseason.

"Definitely," Bjorklund said. "It's a blank slate. Any spot is up for grabs and everyone knows that. It is definitely going to be competitive."

That is in stark contrast to Bjorklund's first two seasons at Tennessee. As a freshman she joined a veteran-laden team that had just won a national title. As a sophomore she suddenly was a veteran, and injuries and freshmen not prepared to play major minutes wiped out the depth inside and out. Players got on the court because they had to play, not necessarily because they were ready to play. Summitt doesn't want a repeat this season.

"That says a lot about our team, because we're going to have a deep bench," Bjorklund said. "Whatever Coach decides to do it depends on how the season goes and who steps up and works hard. I've got to be consistent, working hard every day and being a leader and being aggressive on offense, too. I think that's going to be key."

Summitt has already asked Bjorklund to be more aggressive on offense this season. She played within the system for her first two years. Tennessee needs for the junior to establish herself as a go-to player this season.

"I think it's just looking for shots," Bjorklund said. "That is going to be my role and also getting shots within the offense, setting and using screens."

Tennessee will likely look to get multiple shots from its arsenal of three-point shooters as all seven perimeter players can hit from behind the arc. Spani, Stricklen and Bjorklund were draining long-range shots in the scrimmages. That will unclog the paint and allow Cain to work around the basket, where she performed very well last season despite being hobbled by chronic knee pain.

"If we have that many people that can shoot behind the arc it's going to be a lot easier for Kelley," Bjorklund said.

Summitt went into the preseason a year ago aware of how many neophytes were on the roster. She swallowed her whistle – she said she had to pick and choose her spots with such a young team – and did a lot of teaching. She has continued to allow her assistants to drill and teach because of the need for repetition, but if she is not pleased with execution or effort, her voice is quickly – and loudly – heard. She interrupted the proceedings several times Thursday to deliver some emphatic instructions about what she expected.

"I am not going to put up with people not playing hard all the time," Summitt said. "I am not going to do it. I lived through that last year, and it was miserable."


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